Book Review: Information Graphics published by Taschen


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Taschen, 145,366 pages (approximately)

This is physically the largest book I own, and I managed to get it home from LA in my carry on baggage somehow. Probably the most thoughtful part of this book is the initial mini book that is slightly inset in the first 96 pages; It is a historical view of information graphics, from their origin through the 20th century.

Taschen book: oil rigThe book is an example of its subject, being information and graphics. It is inspirational, in that it can be opened randomly for a new hint into visualizing numbers and making meaningful emphasis out of large data sets. But it can also be used systematically to identify the type of data that must be presented and solutions for its presentation: the sections are divided into graphics which best show data based on Location, Time, Hierarchy, and Category.

Of course, this is a book, and so animated, or interactive infographics can’t be easily shown, however I’ve found that if you can’t get your meaning across in a static infographic, at least as a storyboard or infographic, you are not going to benefit a user by making them play with your interactive interface.

pioneer-10-record

There is a reason that the pioneer and voyager space probes have infographics written on them, as their first means of communication with any alien intelligence that may find them, and this is certainly a universal language which it is worth being literate in. As with any language, it is harder to create simplicity that it first seems, and this book is a great support to lean up against in the first few minutes of planning your next bar chart or 9 dimensional genetic map of Canadian immigration patterns.

There is a counter argument to some of the more beautiful recent inforgraphics out there – the visual first impression of beautifully organized data is not carried through when a viewer, initially intrigued, tries to ‘unwrap’ the data from the visualization. In other word, the presentation starts to get in the way of the information and the message, counter to what Tufte had in mind with visual display of Quantitative Information. I think this is a valid argument more recently as the world of infographics becomes more saturated, and any given infographic must do more to win a brief moment of mind share.

I would say that this is an opportunity, not a problem. There are more tools than ever to present data visualizations – the time it takes to generate the graphics from the data is not limited by manual labour because an algorithm can be written that ‘sees’ the data for us in a way that turns it into information – like a slice through a big dataset, offering a perspective and meaning. Because these tools are available, it becomes the responsibility of the infographic to also present information hierarchically in terms of attention span – specifically, there is meaning at a Glance, at a Skim, and at a Study.

For example, in Shells Big Dig graphic, the first thing we understand is the scale of the engineering – this is not microchip design. The second level of study is context of place: a map of where, and a depth chart that shows why the engineering is needed. Finally, there are the specific hotspot descriptions of individual details for study. The graph is not the central image in this case, it is the physical object, and by presenting it in relation to other  things like depth, a helicopter, and a map, a sense of dimension and scale are presented at a glance. The topic becomes the chart. Providing a familiar place for data to sit, clarifies it and provides justification for more elaborate infographics.

This book does show some charts that seem to find data to justify their existence as methods of communicating data, but this should simply serve as a warning not to fall in love with a particular data visualization which is not familiar to the viewer because it is cutting-edge for the designer. Information communication is about lowering barriers to understanding, while still capturing the attention of the viewer long enough to say something.

To see masterful infographics in action, you really want to check out xkcd.

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